Thursday, September 6, 2012

OJ Simpson, Forgiveness and the Other Side of the Story

FORGIVENESS IS ONE OF THE biggest challenges of the Yamim Noraim. We are told to forgive others, we want to forgive others, and yet it is so difficult to do so. Why is it so difficult?

I think in the age of the Internet tension and animosity is always bubbling to the surface. We get frustrated much quicker than in the pre-digital age as our expectations of others has increased. We call someone’s cell phone and they don’t pick up-what could they possibly be doing that is more important than picking up my call. How rude!

We send a text and it is not returned within 15 minutes. I can’t believe they’re ignoring me, the nerve of some people!

The tension goes both ways. If we feel people are intruding on our time by calling, texting or e-mailing too much we get upset. Yet, when we do the same to others, we expect them to respond promptly.

With daily tensions and frustrations at such a fever pitch, it is important that we consider the challenge of forgiveness. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), we are told to judge everyone favorably. How can we in good conscience judge everyone favorably, even when we are sure that they are guilty of their alleged crimes?

To answer that, indulge me in a quick tangent that might cause you to question my sanity. If I asked a random person on the street to name the five most villainous people of the past twenty years, there is a good chance that O.J. Simpson would be on that list. He is still, twenty years after his trial, public enemy #1. He is viewed as evil incarnate. However, some very prominent news stories have caused me to question that assumption.

Over the past few years there is a growing mountain of evidence that football can cause long term cognitive difficulties. Retired NFL players have much higher rates of early onset dementia, and many experience fits of rage, depression and a multitude of other side effects. Certainly players from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s were at a high risk. This has caused people to rethink the behavior of many former players. The suicides of former players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, the erratic behavior of NY Giant great Lawrence Taylor (#24 in the link), and many more.

There is one jump people have been unwilling to make-did football cause O.J. Simpson’s erratic behavior and uncontrollable rage? Nobody knows, but it is a fair question to ask. Another former running back, the Packers Dorsey Levens, wrote and performs in a show about a former NFL who exhibits rage and threatens to kill family members. Running backs take a lot of hits to the head, and O.J. Simpson took as much as anyone. So it seems quite plausible that O.J. Simpson is suffering brain trauma from his football career. What if in twenty years they perform an autopsy on O.J. and find extreme head trauma from football? How would we view him then?

I’m not saying this excuses the behavior or means he she have been found innocent, thousands of former NFL players are productive and healthy members of society. However, it could create a context for understanding him that causes us to at least give him the benefit of the doubt-maybe there was more going on than we realize.

The truth is, that happens all the time. Twenty years ago if I said the names Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Bill Clinton-you would have a very different picture than you have of them today. Over time, our perceptions of people change, for good and bad. That is the meaning of “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It doesn’t mean we think the person is innocent, but it does mean we need to assume there is more context than we realize, and have the humility to know that we don’t have the entire story.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who blogs on several topics including sports and the entertainment industry. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.